Grant’s thought remains as relevant as ever. But his lament, often misunderstood, deserves reassessment. Grant’s pessimism contains seeds that give us reason for optimism beyond what he imagined.
No matter what I write about right now it’s going to be completely overshadowed by a big event happening somewhere else, which made it easy to decide what to write about. Read between the lines why I chose this week, of all weeks, to write about George Grant and Lament for a Nation. This essay expands on what I wrote in a previous newsletter about a new kind of patriotism. If you’re not someone who likes political theorizing this might not be your cup of tea.
A Lament or a Manifesto?
Plenty of Canadians have at least heard of George Grant, even today. Most people’s experience with Grant is through Lament for a Nation, a book which arouses passions and devoted followers like few other Canadian books. Yet Lament, while significant, was absolutely not Grant’s masterpiece even if it became his major legacy. My experience discussing Grant with students and other followers of him is that most people have read little beyond Lament, which means both Grant and his project are deeply misunderstood.
If I was putting together a reading list of Grant, I wouldn’t start with Lament, because to understand the Canada that has been defeated, you have to understand not just America, you have to understand what he thinks about modernity, liberalism, technology, and progress. Canada’s inevitable absorption into the American empire was ultimately just a minor battlefront in a bigger story about modernity.
One of the strangest things about the way Lament was received by Canadians is that it aroused passion, not pessimism. In Lament Grant makes it clear that his book is a lament for something already lost, not a call to arms and resistance. But this is not how many of its readers, and many of Grant’s followers and admirers interpreted it. The book became a manifesto for Canadian nationalism and resistance to American hegemony.
This is the paradox that challenges Grant’s thesis. By declaring the war over and Canada lost, Grant brought it back to life. But Grant’s lament for the lost conservative traditions that made Canada possible, and the specific issues he chose to rally around as the last battle in this defeat didn’t serve as a rally cry for a conservative counter-revolution so much as it emboldened an anti-imperialist left. Lament was popular not just with conservatives, but with leftists opposed to American imperialism, intervention in Vietnam, and nuclear proliferation. Paradoxically then, Grant opened up new space for an anti-imperialist nationalism.
Grant’s Conservative Nationalism
Grant’s conceptualization of Canada will be familiar to many of you. The deeply flawed protagonist of the book is of course John Diefenbaker, who Grant offers a vigorous defence of. “Diefenbaker was accused of anti-Americanism, but he was surely being honest to his own past when he said that he thought of his policies as being pro-Canadian, not anti-American.” These “pro-Canadian” policies become a central topic of the book as Grant offers a romanticized account of what the basis of Canada’s distinctiveness is. Grant identifies Diefenbaker’s pro-Canadian instincts as rooted “in a profound, if romantic, sense of historical continuity.” In this Grant identifies our British connections and institutions as “providing a counterthrust to the pull of continentalism.”
The Britishness of Canada:
“was more than economic. It was a tradition that stood in firm opposition to the Jeffersonian liberalism so dominant in the United States. By its nature this conservatism was not philosophically explicit, although it had shaped our institutions and had penetrated into the lives of generations of Canadians.”
Again, while some interpret it as a manifesto of resistance, Grant saw it as a lament for what was already lost. By 1965 Canada had already disappeared, and the reason Grant could make this claim despite the reaction to his book, was because of how he understood nations. Grant understood nations in reference to what he saw as their “guiding intentions.” In a footnote Grant notes that “national articulation is a process through which human beings form and reform themselves into a society to act historically. This process coheres around the intention realized in the action.”
What is he saying here? He’s saying that nations have an intentionality about them and come together in ways beyond more organic geographic, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, or demographic characteristics. Yes these things form organic parts of what constitutes a nation, but Grant’s understanding is that nations have an intent beyond these organic characteristics: “a society only articulates itself as a nation through some common intention among its people.”
Grant’s lament is for the disappearance of the intent that he saw as the foundation of Canada. Grant’s account of Canada’s national founding was as a common partnership between two peoples who possessed “an inchoate desire to build a society with a greater sense of order and restraint than freedom-loving republicanism would allow.”
This common desire for order, restraint, and the public good brought British and French Canada together, united by a common national intent. Grant overstates the significance of the role and influence of the Loyalists, but it is the Loyalists and French Catholics who possessed two distinctive conservative visions of societies they wished to preserve. Defined in contrast to America, but with an intent to preserve something distinct. This is the intent for a nation that built Canada for Grant, and he saw it reflected in our founding Constitutional Acts in both 1791 and 1867.
This is a conservative nationalism. While Grant undoubtedly engaged in some mythologizing in weaving this national narrative together, there’s definitely a lot of truth to it. Canada’s development and history is defined by a different approach to all sorts of questions of social, political, and economic importance that are characterized by this intentionality. Grant claimed for example, “this conservative nationalism expressed itself in the use of public control in the political and economic spheres. Our opening of the West differed from that of the United States, in that the law of the central government was used more extensively, and less reliance was placed on the free settler.”
If you want to understand Grant’s red toryism, a label he rejected for himself, you have to understand it not in ideological terms but tied up in questions of national preservation. The combination of toryism and socialism that is enabled and indeed required by our national intent is why thinkers that have fallen under this red tory label include people on both the left and the right.
Red toryism properly understood is not an ideological label, it’s a uniquely Canadian tradition because it is intimately tied up with national intent. It’s also why it’s ironic the label today gets used to describe “liberal lite” conservatives. This national intent is explicitly in opposition to the unrestrained liberal excesses of the American project. It is an explicitly conservative national intent, on Grant’s account Canada’s very existence is a sort of conservative political project.
Progress, Liberalism, and Continentalism
Once you understand this you see why Grant’s lament is a funeral oration and not a call to arms. Our national intent was conservative. This was at the core of who we were. Nations require an intent, and if a nation cannot articulate an intent then it is lost. Grant thought Canada had become impossible precisely because a genuine conservatism that would give Canada a distinct identity consistent with its origins was no longer possible. As Grant declared, “the impossibility of conservatism in our era is the impossibility of Canada.” But why?
It is not a gotcha statement to say that Canadian identity is born in a negative identity and a desire not to be American. Being born in opposition is a common feature of nationalism. Here’s a passage from one of my favourite writers today Michael Brendan Dougherty that captures the fundamental legitimacy and realness of this desire and why there’s nothing unusual or embarrassing about our desire to not be American:
At the top, nationalism is usually not a meat-headed and narrow belief that “my nation is best in every way,” but instead springs out of a recognition of the power or greatness of a neighboring nation. A nationalist usually begins by lamenting that his own people don’t consider themselves as good or as dignified as the more powerful nation next door. He laments that his people are settling for mediocrity, consenting and cooperating with the rule of colonial masters, or simply consigning themselves to the slow erosion of their traditions.
But Grant has a specific name for the force against which he is trying to resist, it is not merely American influence. It is what he calls “continentalism.” This isn’t just about America, and this is where readers of Grant go wrong. Continentalism is inseparable and tied up with modernity, and progress itself. It is the drive towards what the philosopher Alexandre Kojeve called the “universal and homogenous state.” This is the end goal of modernity, and liberalism, a state in which all contradictions are reconciled and all humans are free and equal with their needs satisfied. If you’re familiar with Francis Fukuyama’s End of History this will sound familiar.
Continentalism, and America itself, are a part of this process, and continentalism requires nations be overcome. The essence of continentalism is liberalism in which “democracy has not been interpreted solely in a political sense, but has been identified with social equality, contractual human relations, and the society open to all men, regardless of race or creed or class.” To oppose this process and the move towards the universal and homogenous state was to be in opposition to inevitable progress, which is what made it so hard to resist. Continentalism is inseparable from the very idea of progress. Grant remarks:
“Has it not been in the age of progress that disease and overwork, hunger and poverty, have been drastically reduced? Those who criticize our age must at the same time contemplate pain, infant mortality, crop failures in isolated areas, and the sixteen-hour day.”
How could anyone be opposed to continentalism if it means progress?
Progress, and continentalism, are deeply connected to the major theme of Grant’s entire corpus: technology. Technology is the essence of modernity for Grant, and is itself inseparable from liberalism. Grant’s later work on this helps clarify Lament. In the various essays published under three titles: Technology and Empire,English Speaking Justice, and Technology and Justice Grant turns more directly to the nature of liberalism and its relationship with technology.
English-Speaking Justice is in my view Grant’s most important work. Grant examines the foundations of anglo-liberalism and what he saw as an admirable tradition corroded and undermined by its own internal drive and towards progress and technological mastery. Contrast Grant with contemporary antiliberals. He writes that “Liberalism in its generic form...is surely something that all decent men accept as good – conservatives included.” Specifically what Grant admires is the “noble core” of liberalism:
“the institutions of the English-speaking world at their best have been much more than a justification of progress in the mastery of human and non-human nature. They have affirmed that any regime to be called good, and any progress to be called good, must include liberty and consent.”
But despite this noble core, liberalism cannot resist the temptation of the imperatives of technological progress. According to Grant:
“it is in the heartlands of the English-speaking empire that the more fundamental facts appear which put into question the mutual interdependence of technological and liberal reason. The chief of these facts is that the development of technology is now increasingly directed toward the mastery of human beings...technology organizes a system which requires a massive apparatus of artisans concerned with the control of human beings.”
The technological drive is irresistible, and in English Speaking Justice Grant identifies liberalism as its ultimate partner and enabler. The liberal language of rights and conceptualization of justice, including that noble core of “liberty and consent” aid technological mastery by reducing human beings and relations to purely contractual ones and by dissolving our particularistic loyalties to tradition, custom, and place.
The relationship between technology and liberalism is that as both progress, the view of man and politics that emerges is of a world consisting entirely of self-interested individuals. Any other organic or primordial attachments and sentiments are corroded by this contractual self-interest and politics becomes reduced to the organization of men to enable them to achieve their desires and wants.
This is all very abstract if you aren’t familiar with the work already, but progress, technology, liberalism, and continentalism are all intertwined. Absorption into America was not feared as kind of nation-to-nation rivalry by Grant, it was lamented as an inevitable part of the irresistible progress that continentalism represented. This liberal and technological progress, by turning men into self-calculating machines incapable of particularistic loyalties or attachments beyond superficial preferences and identities, made impossible the three things that Grant thought were essential to our national intentions: order, restraint and a sense of the public good. Canada’s disappearance was inevitable because its distinctive existence and survival depended on an intentionality no longer possible.
Grant himself had no real interest in any kind of political or societal action to resist continentalism, he thought the battle lost. And if you understand his argument you see why he thinks it is pointless to resist the march of progress. But that does not change the fact that many readers of Grant did not see it this way. Part of the problem, I think, is that to understand Grant’s argument fully requires a familiarity with other thinkers like Strauss and Kojeve, and to read Grant’s other writings beyond Lament. It is an irony of how Grant is remembered. He is remembered for Lament but not much else, which leads to a misunderstanding of his argument that ironically inspired so many Canadians to resist continentalism.
But it’s over 50 years since Grant wrote the book, which gives us a chance to test some of Grant’s expectations. If you understand Grant’s argument properly you cannot just point to Canada’s continued existence as an independent nation and say that it falsifies Grant’s hypothesis. But you can look at contemporary Canada and see that, as much as the old Canada is gone, we retain impulses and intentions that should give us reason for optimism.
Canada’s nationalism morphed in the second half of the twentieth century. I won’t rehash this argument, but Canada’s nationalism morphs into a liberal nationalism which replaces the old nationalism. A fascinating switch takes place as this happens. Our need to distinguish ourselves from America is alive and well, but instead of defining ourselves by being more restrained and conservative, we define ourselves by being more liberal and progressive than America.
So much of contemporary Canadian anti-Americanism is crass and vulgar, and it’s in part because it is sustained by defining ourselves in opposition to a caricatured version of America. Grant (rightly) saw the American project and founding as the incarnation of liberalism, but today we define ourselves in opposition to a backwards America. The redneck America of Bibles and guns. What makes us distinct is the we are actually more liberal and progressive than they are, not less.
Grant would have looked at this development and either despaired or laughed I suspect. Embracing and doubling down on this liberalism would have been to him a sign of our defeat and demise because this liberalism cannot sustain a distinctive national identity. Justin Trudeau’s now infamous remarks about Canada being the world’s first “post-national” state would have been to him vindication. If the Canada of order and restraint is gone, then we are destined to disappear as a nation. Liberalism cannot sustain our distinctive national community, even if for now it allows us to define ourselves contra backwards America.
Love of One’s Own
Despite all this, I still think there’s reason for optimism. And you don’t have to reject Grant to retain this optimism, it’s latent in his thought. Grant is right is that the old nationalism is dead, and the new liberal nationalism cannot sustain us. We cannot go back, but the fact that we retain a desire to remain distinct even if we can’t articulate clearly what or how we are distinct points to there still being a national pulse.
A theme that Grant returns to throughout his writing is “love of one’s own.” At the core of Grant’s critique of liberalism is that it turns us into an impoverished, atomized, and reductive machine motivated and governed only by self-interest. Contractarianism and the language of rights do not guide us towards virtue or good, they turn us into self-interested and technological vassals. What Kojeve called the “reanimalized man.” All loyalties and attachments become superficial subjective preferences, they don’t reflect anything concrete, good, or truly meaningful. We are slaves to our passions, our arbitrary preferences, and our unrestrained whims.
But at the core of this is Grant’s foundational belief that it is through the love of one’s own that we become better and discover the good. Love of one’s own for Grant is not some jingoistic rallying cry, it is the mediated gateway between the particular and the universal. We don’t become good or virtuous solely by reasoning our way to abstract principles, we are habituated to it through these particular loyalties and attachments.
In Lament he remarks that “love of one’s own must ultimately be a means to love of the good.” Grant is not saying that these particular attachments and loyalties are the capital-G Good in themselves. But what these attachment and love of one’s own do is provide a sort of bridge by which we can discover the good. It is through a love of the things that are our own; family, community, nation, that we can come to first grasp and see justice and the good. This doesn’t begin with abstract principles, it begins with concrete and habituated attachments.
In an essay in Technology and Empire titled “Canadian Fate and Imperialism” Grant writes that “man is by nature a political animal and to know that citizenship is an impossibility is to be cut off from one of the highest forms of life.” Love of one’s own is an inescapable human impulse, it can be dulled but not eliminated, and for Grant it connects us to the good and the highest forms of life.
Politics is built on this inclination, which gives us hope. This inclination is inescapable, and enables us to overcome the reductive self-interest of contractual liberalism. Love of one’s own is not some primitive attachment, it is the beginning of virtue and justice. We are habituated to and guided to these things through our attachments, and are thus able to ascend this narrow contractual self-interest that renders the world soulless and empty. There are echoes of this in all sorts of thinkers, like the French philosopher Pierre Manent or the late conservative philosopher Roger Scruton. Nations and national communities are particular embodiments of universal human nature, they mediate us and guide us to something beyond ourselves. They are not the good in themselves, they point us to something else. But love of one’s own, the foundation of politics, stands in contrast and opposition to pure unmediated and unrestrained liberalism.
A New National Intent
This core commitment in Grant’s thought explains why for as pessimistic as he was, we shouldn’t be surprised that Canada has yet to disappear. While the intentionality of our old nationalism is gone and replaced with a new liberal nationalism, Canadians fundamentally still retain this “love of one’s own” that sustains our patriotism. This is good.
I’ve probably done a poor job explaining Grant’s thought here. But I decided to flesh all this out because this is an important and implicit basis for other arguments I’ve made. In the last newsletter I made the point that I’ve made repeatedly, namely that Canada is becoming more regional and that these regional attachments and loyalties are the key to our future. And as I argued here our new liberal nationalism is ultimately incapable of commanding deep loyalties and attachments, and this has opened up space for these regional loyalties to grow.
There are two basic statements of “Grantian thought” that I have broadly set out here. First: that the old nationalism that sustained Canada is dead and isn’t coming back, even if aspects of it definitely do live on (see the previous newsletter). Second, that the new liberal nationalism cannot sustain us. But I would like to add a third statement that you might say is a sort of “neo-Grantian” addition. This love of one’s own is irrepressible, and in Canada our loyalties and attachments are increasingly to these growing regional and subnational loyalties. This is a good thing, and as I said in the last newsletter this could and should form the basis long term of a new kind of national intent.
I like to think that most of my writing fits together and different essays and pieces build off one another. That’s what I’m trying to do here. I frequently make reference and link to the American Interest piece I wrote because it contains what is my central concern with Canada’s future. Absorption into America is not our most immediate threat, it is fragmentation and dissolution that I think is much more likely if there is no common intent that glues us together. For Canada to survive a new intent is needed, and it has to build both on our past and our future which means making this regional pluralism and diversity the centre of who we are.
We retain a desire not to be absorbed into America, even if the ostensible reason for that has changed. But if our loyalties and attachments are to these regional and local communities and no longer to any national community why do we need to remain together? Well, in the hypothetical event where fragmentation really did lead to the physical dissolution and Balkanization of Canada into various different independent nations, we’d probably end up with a collection of small nations that did just get absorbed into the United States. Fragmentation might be the precursor to continentalism.
What is left of that old intent, which was at its core a desire to build something distinct and different, needs to be fused with these new attachments to build a national community that recognizes our survival depends on our confederation, but one that enables these various distinct identities and loyalties to flourish. If you buy the Grantian argument set out here, this cannot be the liberal nationalism we have today. It works as a purgatorial holding house for our national intent, but it cannot sustain us.
Grant’s deeply pessimistic thought contains reason for hope, but it requires we move beyond just lamenting what is lost, and embrace something irrepressible and good that is found in love of one’s own. This could be our future.
I’ve been doing some surveying of subscribers and the consensus is that quality is better over quantity. The best feedback I’ve got has also consistently been for the longer and more thoughtful newsletters. So I’ve decided that instead of pumping a newsletter out every week, I’m going to do one roughly every other week, and sometimes more often if I feel the need. Quality (and thoughtfulness) over quantity. There will also be some exciting news in the near future.